L. Neil Smith's

Number 42, July 27, 1998

Colt's Chief Stands Up For Federal Gun Control

By Henry Goldman
Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer*

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Ronald L. Stewart is unique among the nation's gun manufacturers. He favors a form of national gun control.
         Stewart, the chief executive officer of Colt's Manufacturing Co., advocates a comprehensive federal firearms law, including the creation of a federal gun permit. And he wants gun owners to be licensed, tested and subjected to mandatory safety training.
         These views have made him a pariah in the gun community.
         On gun-friendly web sites, there have been calls for a boycott of Colt's handguns and rifles. "The actions of Colt's officials are detrimental to American-style freedoms and liberties!" wrote one recent contributor to the GunsSaveLives Internet Discussion List.
         In an interview at the headquarters of the 162-year-old company, Stewart said his views were based on the assumption that increased government regulation was inevitable. "I'm just searching for a middle-of-the-road position, and that's why I've taken such a beating from others in the industry," he said. "They want me to just go along with something that the public increasingly sees as an extreme view."
         For gun manufacturers and distributors, he said, federal regulation would be far easier to live with than separate laws for each state. And licensing and testing of gun users, he said, is no more onerous, and no less reasonable, than licensing and testing of those who drive automobiles.
         "I'm trying to address the question of how do you operate the gun safely so that you don't injure somebody," he said. "It doesn't make sense to stake out a position that is perceived by the public to be anti-safety ...
         "I'm not a gun nut," Stewart said. "I'm not even a member of the NRA."
         More often than not, Stewart said, he supports the National Rifle Association's positions on issues. But the NRA, according to chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre, has "never been in favor of a federal permit and never will be."
         Some of Stewart's critics say his gun-control proposals are motivated more to promote Colt than to enhance public safety.
         "I think there are many who feel, rightly or wrongly, he has staked out these positions to curry favor with police departments and with those in the federal government, who would [be able to] influence the success of their product," said Dave Tinker, publisher of Firearms Business, a trade publication. Stewart denies such accusations, which were also made by the Coalition of New Jersey Sportsmen in a flyer distributed widely at the NRA convention in Philadelphia last month.
         But there is no question that Stewart has developed a business strategy intended more for insulating Colt from government regulations than fighting them.
         In a highly fragmented and competitive market that has been stagnant for five years, he hopes to capture an increased share of the law-enforcement market -- and ultimately the home-user market -- through so-called smart-gun technology while expanding military sales overseas.
         While Stewart sees himself as eminently reasonable, others in the gun industry depict him as a heretic.
         "He's definitely espousing views about our industry that are out of step with opinions held by manufacturers and gun owners, and it is a matter of great concern to us," said Georgia Nichols, vice president and general counsel of Connecticut-based O.F. Mossberg & Sons, which makes shotguns and other firearms.
         In May, Stewart resigned from the board of the American Shooting Sports Council, an Atlanta-based trade group, after the council attacked the Clinton administration's ban on imported assault weapons.
         What upset Stewart was that the council, in launching its attack, said that one reason to permit such imports was that they are no different from domestic products such as the AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle Colt makes.
         Stewart's declaration of independence from the rest of the industry came in December when he wrote a guest editorial in American Firearms Industry magazine. While he attacked the antigun lobby, he also endorsed federal regulation.
         Strangely enough, his alienation from the rest of the industry had its first public manifestation two months earlier, when he appeared to be taking an anti-safety stance.
         There was a ceremony at the White House at which 10 gun executives told President Clinton they would voluntarily ship child-safe locks with their products. Since then, 16 more gun-makers have signed on. But Stewart was not at the White House and has not signed on.
         "Why is it that everyone else feels that it's a good idea and he doesn't?" asked Richard Feldman, director of the American Shooting Sports Council, which organized the event. "We've given people what they need to help prevent someone, particularly a child, from negligently using the gun."
         Stewart, who called the White House announcement "a dog-and-pony show," said such locks are unreliable and give a false sense of security when used on a loaded gun. He said he expects lawsuits when locked guns accidentally fire.
         The real way to prevent accidents, Stewart said, is the "smart gun," designed to prevent a gun from being fired by anyone but the intended operator.
         Stewart claims his company is ahead in developing such a gun, using a microchip worn on the shooter that will transmit a signal to a receiving chip inside the gun.
         One prototype has been tested with mixed results; a second will be available by the end of August, Stewart said. If all goes well, the company will be ready to make the guns available to police departments for testing within two years, he said.
         Colt sees a big market in law enforcement; 16 percent of all shootings of police officers occur when their guns are grabbed out of their hands or holsters by criminals. Currently, Colt has almost no share of the police market.
         "It's a technology that you can't ignore, and it has the potential not just to save a lot of police lives, but to safeguard weapons purchased for home use, keep them out of the hands of thieves or kids, people who shouldn't have them," said Paul Bolton, who heads the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
         Gun sales to police departments, usually at cost, do not create profits, but the prestige of being chosen as a law-enforcement weapon creates profitable sales in the commercial market, Stewart said.
         Why are others in the industry so distrustful of Stewart and so quick to question his motives?
         One reason is that Stewart, 56, is an outsider, according to Tinker, the publisher of Firearms Business. Stewart became Colt's president in 1996, after 22 years at Chrysler and a working lifetime in the automobile industry. He was brought in after the company had been in bankruptcy and had been purchased by a limited partnership headed by Donald Zilkha, a New York financier.
         Since then, Stewart said, a series of management reforms and cost controls have produced a profit of about $10 million on about $100 million in sales.
         The key to sustained profitability, Stewart said, "will be whether we can insulate ourselves from the turmoil that will exist in the commercial gun market in the years to come."
         He said the fact that he's an outsider had helped him see gun-control issues more clearly than his competitors do.
         "I'm not dealing with the emotions of it," he said. "I can sit back and see where it's going. The gun industry is where the automobile industry was in the 1960s -- the same clamor for safety regulations. Seat belts. Air bags. We are going to go through a period of reform and legislation. All I'm trying to do is survive and prosper in whatever direction this thing takes."

* This article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 13, 1998 and was forwarded to TLE from the GunsSaveLives Internet Discussion List by Bob Phipps bphipp@pernet.net.

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